2024 to Mark the Beginning of the “Reintegration’s Hot Phase”?

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Anton ŠVEC
The current regime is preparing to sharply raise the stakes in relations with the left-bank regions of the country next year. Is this a coercion for forced reintegration or an attempt to ignite a military conflict?
Yesterday, the government approved the action plan for 2024, which envisages the implementation of more than half a thousand actions. Most of them, of course, are related to the European integration process, but in general they are aimed at achieving four priorities: peace and security, economic development and job creation, modernization of infrastructure and improvement of living conditions, and justice reform. However, the measures stipulated in the traditional section “country’s reintegration” do not fit with the first priority. Experts on both banks of the Dniester have already noticed the rather radical plans of the executive authorities to change relations with Tiraspol in the field of trade and transport. Thus, the document presented yesterday envisages the amendment or cancellation of the governmental decision No. 1001 in order to reduce or eliminate the privileges for the enterprises from the left bank on import duties and pollution charges. Another paragraph considers legislative amendments prohibiting the movement of vehicles with Transnistrian plate numbers on the right bank. Meanwhile, the regional administration continues to accuse the central authorities of economic blockade. The issue of environmental payments, for example, has been discussed several times this year during the meetings of the so-called working groups on economy and ecology. Tiraspol refers to the agreement of ten years ago, which exempts local businesses from paying environmental fees to the Moldovan budget, and warns that changing this status quo could lead to the shutdown of one or more large industries due to the double taxation. With these complaints, local representatives regularly appeal to international players, such as the European Union, whose delegation visited the region a couple of days ago. As for the implementation of import duties and/or other customs payments (such a proposal was submitted by the Ministry of Environment last month, but was not considered by the government), this threatens the economy of the left bank as a whole, as it would make the goods produced there uncompetitive on foreign markets, leading to price hikes, inflation and bankruptcy of many businesses. In this case, a clash and uncontrolled confrontation in the economic sector between the two banks is inevitable, as Tiraspol will not be calmly watching the ruination of its industry and services. The application of retaliatory measures, up to the return to the prohibitive duties on goods from the country’s right bank, which existed until 2012, will be almost inevitable. Another government’s intention to ban the movement of cars with Transnistrian plate numbers is guaranteed to cause social tension and crisis in the negotiations. The 2018 agreement on the creation of so-called Vehicle Registration Offices (VRO) has a special clause allowing the movement of vehicles with Transnistrian-issued plate numbers on the right bank roads. Similar commitments were stipulated in other, earlier, agreements between Chisinau and Tiraspol. The government’s determination to abandon this “legacy” of the conflict settlement negotiations may trigger a reaction not only from Transnistria, but also from international actors, as it will provoke a transport blockade of the region and drastically reduce people-to-people contacts. The thing is that these VRO are now working in a limited mode and do not issue new neutral plate numbers. In 4 years, according to various estimates, about 7-8 thousand car owners have received them. At the same time, according to the regional administration, at least 90 thousand cars remain “overboard”. This number includes cargo-passenger, medical and specialized vehicles (which, as stated, have no possibility to obtain neither neutral nor Moldovan plates). If the entry of such vehicles is banned in 2024, without providing an alternative in the form of the same VRO, there will be a social explosion - residents of the region will simply not be able to leave the area either by private cars or by minibuses. A potential retaliatory ban threatens to cut off any communication between the two banks. The motorway bridges that the government plans to reconstruct will be of no use (except for those who have managed to get neutral plate numbers). Moreover, the measures envisaged in the plan can hardly be regarded as public threats or normative projects “inviting” negotiations to revise them in exchange for something. They are fixed as specific tasks for the coming year to be fulfilled. Thus, the government deliberately “burns bridges” and aggravates relations with Transnistria amidst the barely alive conflict settlement process, which increases the risks of the situation getting out of control. On the other hand, if the current regime’s goal is absolute destabilization, then everything seems logical. And then it is clear why the government wants to pressurize the main “pain points” of the separatist region by sharply raising the stakes. Most likely, such a risky policy would have been impossible without the sanction of Western curators. And the timing of decisions is quite interesting. The government’s plan was finalized and published immediately after communication with EU officials at various levels, as well as the US, UK and Ukraine. Maia Sandu visited Kyiv, where she held meetings with the head of the EU Council Charles Michel, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the leadership of the British Foreign Office and MI6 (intelligence). Judging by the leaks, the topic of Transnistria was also touched upon at these talks. Dorota Dlouchy-Suliga, representative of the European External Action Service in the 5+2 format, visited Chisinau at the beginning of the week and did not object to the government’s intentions to escalate relations with the Transnistrian region. Earlier, the leaders and diplomats of the USA, Great Britain and a number of EU countries who visited our country expressed their unconditional support for the regime. The tactics of Maia Sandu and PAS in relations with Transnistria (and first of all with Russia) look like a purposeful movement towards conflict. It is simply impossible to explain this bellicose course (and not only on the diplomatic and information front) by other motives. Apparently, the country’s leadership, which considers a “small victorious war” on the Dniester as one of the possibilities for retaining power, has been promised full Western support and guaranteed that there will be no risks associated with retaliatory strikes by the Russian Federation. It is only necessary to formulate an ultimatum to the elites on the left bank and at the same time to withdraw from the truce agreement of 1992, in fact declaring war on Tiraspol and Moscow. It is not for nothing that we are so actively supplied with weapons and money and trained during military exercises. What even the most victorious war can lead to in the context of a severe socio-economic crisis, population outflow and deep divisions in society is a rhetorical question. In any case, the unfreezing of the territorial conflict in Moldova seems to be the most dangerous adventure with many unknown variables - any of which will play against us. It is impossible to predict Russia’s reaction now - whether it will accept the loss of Transnistria, limiting itself to sanctions and diplomatic measures, or whether its response will be of the military nature. Although Moscow cannot project military force in Moldova now for obvious reasons, according to Ukrainian intelligence, for example, Russia has accumulated a significant arsenal of missile and incorporeal weapons. It is believed to be for strikes on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure - but the target could be different if a “second front” is opened. In any case, we are entering an extremely dangerous phase, when every new ill-considered and confrontational step of the current regime may become fatal. It is difficult to predict how it will turn out in reality, but the aggressive choice of Maia Sandu and PAS, contrary to the fundamental interests of the country and the population, must be stopped right now, in real time.